Babies, Butterflies, and Books: Faith in The Unknown Factor

by Jennifer Paros 

“Trust the instinct to the end, though you can render no reason.”

                                                           --Ralph Waldo Emerson

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2010

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2010

When I was pregnant with my first child, from the get-go it became apparent that some of my habitual ways of thinking were not going to work so well during this nine-month process.  For example, my inclination to keep a watchful and somewhat controlling eye was going to have to be reigned in.  As my expanding abdomen did not come equipped with a picture window, I was not going to be able to keep checking the baby.  I would have to assume all systems were a go.  Of course, the occasional sonogram was an opportunity to take a peek, but ultimately, this was going to be a journey of trust.  Not something with which I was all that comfortable.

I made it through, and went on to do it again.  But in each pregnancy, it was clear that I had to accept that although my body/nature/life was busy building a person, my conscious self was to only bear witness.  There would be no planning, no tweaking of the product, no manipulation of the outcome.  It’s true I could eat well, take vitamins, and exercise, but the direct result of those actions would not be regulated by my mind. I was to hold this process, be visited by this experience, and let it go.

And although the process of having a baby has often been considered analogous to creative work, I didn’t understand then that the allowing part of both processes is the most significant.  Allowing means participating in the ways that are appropriate and releasing what is not, in fact, our job. I did not know how to direct limbs, eyes and a nose to grow, but clearly some other factor of life did.  This inexplicable other factor was what I came to trust during that time.  And although I wanted a child very much, I had to learn to hold the new life with an open hand and let that unknown factor visit me rather than me trying to control it.

Recently, while working on a rewrite of my children’s story, I took a break from a bumpy time of writing to complain, and I found myself saying I was trying to get it “to the letter.”  This phrase caught my attention−trying so hard was causing me stress, and interfering with the flow of new ideas and the story finding its form.  All my mental effort was backfiring on me.

It was as though I was the boss of a big corporation and EVERYTHING had to be cleared with me before it could happen.  So, all day long, I had to okay copious paperwork allowing employees to use the bathroom, make calls home, think about their mothers, doodle, or go to particular restaurants for lunch.   But instead of being a CEO, I was a writer trying to control what ideas were coming, and how they’d behave and express themselves.  Like the boss, I was overwhelmed, and like the employees, I didn’t feel free at all.

“It is impossible to go through life without trust: that is to be imprisoned in the worst cell of all, oneself.”

                                                                --Graham Greene 

In my current work-in-progress, one of the main characters is very interested in butterflies, and so my interest in them has grown as well.  And what I’ve realized is that when I see a butterfly, no matter how short its visit, I am always grateful for having witnessed it.  I have never gotten to hold and keep one, so in a sense they are always “lost” to me, yet there is no urge to try and control them because when a butterfly arrives, I allow it to move me.  And when it leaves, the envelope is gone, but the message remains.  This way both the butterfly and I get to be free.

And so it is with writing.  The joy and success of the experience never comes from trying to hold and control it, but from the momentary alighting of the idea with the writer.  This meeting, if he allows it, will authentically move the writer enough to feel inspired to share the experience with his audience.  And that unknown factor that is so helpful in making babies and butterflies goes on to play its role in making a book too.

Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle.

Jennifer ParosComment